In a blow to John Tower's bid for confirmation as defense secretary, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee weighing his nomination announced Wednesday that he would vote against Tower. Also Wednesday, the panel's chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), sharply disputed President Bush's contention that Tower has been cleared by a lengthy FBI investigation into allegations of personal and financial misconduct.
A senior White House official said Wednesday evening that Bush expects Nunn to vote against Tower, making the troubled confirmation "an uphill battle." Vice President Dan Quayle has been assigned to a last-ditch effort to round up pro-Tower votes while Bush is in Asia on a state visit.
Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) said that, after reviewing hundreds of pages of FBI reports on Tower's drinking habits, "it is my considered judgment that we should look elsewhere for a secretary of defense."
He said that while testimony had not proven conclusively that Tower currently has a drinking problem, "we can't take that risk for a man in that position. We need a 24-hour-a-day secretary of defense."
Nunn, meanwhile, dropped the strongest hint so far that he would vote against Tower's confirmation. He said that he has "continuing concerns" about the former Texas senator's fitness to serve as defense secretary and is awaiting additional documents from the White House before deciding how he will vote.
But he strongly disagreed with Bush's statement Tuesday that the FBI had "gunned down" the numerous allegations against Tower.
"That is the President's opinion. That is not my opinion," Nunn told reporters after a three-hour closed-door meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel will resume meeting in executive session today, with a late-afternoon vote possible.
Exon predicted a close vote in the committee, saying that many Senate Democrats are watching Nunn, the most respected voice on defense matters on Capitol Hill, for a signal on how they should cast their votes.
Nunn said that he hopes the panel can vote today and send the embattled nomination to the full Senate but he would not predict when the committee would receive the new material and conclude its debate.
The committee has requested information about Tower's personal behavior in Geneva while he was chief of a U.S. arms control delegation there in 1985-86. According to sources, witnesses told the FBI that Tower dated women staffers while his wife was out of town, hurting morale, embarrassing the delegation and disrupting business and social engagements.
The panel also is seeking data on an oil-rig investment that Tower made while he was still in the Senate. Published reports this week said that Tower was steered to the profitable deal by the father of a Texas man whom Tower had recommended for a federal judgeship.
Nunn said that the FBI's voluminous report on Tower allows "different interpretations" of the same facts and allegations.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the committee's senior Republican, said: "It is my judgment that reasonable men and women can look at those sets of facts and can have reasonable differences of opinion." Warner remains undecided on the Tower nomination and those familiar with his thinking say that he is agonizing over the vote.
Warner is under strong White House pressure to vigorously back Tower and lead other Republicans in a united front.
Tower served for 24 years as a GOP senator from Texas, retiring in 1985 after four years as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. His confirmation has been delayed by intense scrutiny of his alleged heavy drinking and womanizing and questions about his business dealings as a highly paid consultant to several major defense contractors after leaving the Senate.
Nunn's and Warner's comments appear to presage a sharp party-line division in the committee when the Tower nomination finally comes to a vote. There are 11 Democrats and nine Republicans on the committee and Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate.
Comments from other committee members Wednesday reflected that split.
Sen. Timothy E. Wirth, (D-Colo.) said that he remains "deeply skeptical" about Tower's fitness to head the Pentagon. Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan said that Bush's characterization of the FBI report is "not an accurate description of that file."
Republicans were generally supportive of the nominee's chances after reviewing the 140-page FBI report.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that he has seen nothing in the report to disqualify the Texan from serving as defense secretary.
"We've been at this now for 10 weeks. We're starting to affect national security. This process could go on forever. We need a secretary of defense," McCain said.
Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), a Tower supporter, urged a quick vote, saying: "How much more can we learn about him?"
In the final hours before the vote, Vice President Quayle "is going to be trying to round up votes while Bush is out of the country," a senior White House official said.
Nunn said that the Armed Services Committee expects to receive a report today from a House panel that is conducting its own investigation of improper activities in the Geneva arms delegation.
Berne Indahl, a State Department security officer who had been sent to Geneva in 1986 to investigate allegations of security breaches, told the House committee over the weekend that his inquiry has turned up allegations of personal impropriety against Tower, reportedly involving liaisons with two women staff members.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the panel, said after the closed-door session with Indahl that the State Department "does have certain other relevant information on (Tower's) activities in Geneva."
"This information has not been previously provided either to the subcommittee, the Senate (Armed Services) committee, the FBI or the White House," Dingell said. "We are requesting that information be made available to us punctually and promptly."